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Picks and Pan

In a year that was good but not great, Mark Palermo managed to find a few films he could put his stamp of approval on.

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Two thousand six hadn’t struck me as a particularly good year for movies until I was faced with narrowing down a list of the 10 best. Though nothing new was worthy of the masterpiece label, the strength of this fall’s releases compensated for the mostly chilly summer months.

New movies by Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, Richard Linklater, Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott barely garnered cultural attention. It was a year where The Da Vinci Code took the crown as the most awful megafilm since Batman and Robin. Where Mel Gibson, Martin Campbell and Christopher Nolan moved up the scale of genre filmmakers. Michel Gondry held the best yearly score card, and several unlucky teenagers ruined their first date by seeing Date Movie. Renowned directors were getting away with making weird films. Brian De Palma isolated viewers by emphasizing genre artifice in The Black Dahlia. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed channelled older De Palma crime films, getting him his most enthused notices in years. Neil LaBute willfully put his head on the chopping block with The Wicker Man.

The only regular theatre engagement that I flat-out refused to see was Saw III. I’m therefore unqualified to discuss it in critical terms, except to say it might be great. I place the top three films on my 10 best list very close together. They almost share a collective space as the best movie of the year. All three deal with insular civilizations and the ideal or threat of a world beyond that.

1. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)

Suspiria meets Miyazaki in the Spanish Civil War. Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro understands the potential of storytelling as a way of penetrating real world hardship. A thematic companion to his The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth finds urgency in the mindscape-world of 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she and her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) have moved in with her fascist Nationalist Captain stepfather (Sergi Lopez). Del Toro parallels the horror of two civilizations (one real, one imagined, each with their own monsters), crafting a rich and violent film for grownups who haven’t lost touch with their childhood resources. It’s the year’s most heartbreaking, frightening, fully realized movie experience. It opens in Halifax in late January.

2. Happy Feet (George Miller)

When parents started complaining that Happy Feet was teaching their kids “subversive” messages (question authority, blind conformity is not OK, the environment is in trouble—things children should know, lest they grow up stupid), it was clear the film was doing something right. But Happy Feet’s major strength is its conviction that the best kids’ films are substantial life experiences. The CG ice landscape and colourful characters make for one of 2006’s most visually pure big screen entertainments. Director George Miller’s eye for action (he made the Mad Max films) brings sequences as unique as the penguins leaving intersecting trail-lines in an underwater race for fish. The pathos is there too—as the penguin Mumble furiously chases an ocean liner (to him just an alien being) for its lack of compassion carries a hard poignancy. Disappearing and reappearing from the water’s surface, his insignificance is measured against his determination. He may be a penguin, but it’s an idea of human necessity communicated through a clear, powerful image.

3. Apocalypto (Mel Gibson)

Yes, Mel Gibson’s return after The Passion of the Christ is “just” an action movie, and not the comprehensive study on the downfall of Mayan civilization it was, for some reason, held to. But it’s the fiercest and most morally haunted addition to the genre in ages. Lush forest scenery ties into animalistic barbarism —humankind portrayed so mercilessly we sometimes think we’re watching another planet. The attention Gibson gives to shots of Mayans reacting to others’ suffering cements his artistic instincts, taking his stand as a great filmmaker.

4. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Michel Gondry) Dismissing the up-close celebrity spectacle that’s defined concert films, Michel Gondry and Dave Chappelle redefine the format—bringing to screen the communal experience of attending a music festival. Featured artists The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill and others reject the materialism that’s corrupting hip-hop for a harmonious celebration. The people and the music go hand-in-hand in the year’s most inclusive movie experience.

5. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan)

It’s about competitive stage magicians, yes, but The Prestige’s dueling elements extend to divisions of science and magic, and Nolan (going furthest with his best material yet) engaging in a showdown with his jaded audience. You came here to be blinded by a magic trick, The Prestige reminds us. But if you want to figure it out, the intricate screenplay provides all the pieces. Victorian-era London is the backdrop as illusionists played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale fall victim to the egotistical celebrity fear of being second best. Transcendent pop moviemaking.

6. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)

The “how it all began” aspect of the new 007 is of only trivial interest. By deconstructing the Bond character to a cold shell, making him fallible and in moral ruin, Casino Royale ends up humanizing him. Even on its more realistic action-scale, never has so much felt at stake in a Bond film. With action set in Madagascar, Montenegro and Venice, and nighttime scenes that just glow, Casino Royale has the richest look of the series. Star Daniel Craig exudes a rough sincerity that helps kickstart a franchise past acceptable and into exciting.

7. The Promise (Chen Kaige) It defies realism. There’s a lack of Hollywood sheen in the abundant special effects. These were the dazed complaints that made Kaige’s wuxia epic one of the most confoundingly reviewed movies of the year. Maybe because viewers spend all day reading about movies on the internet, they’ve lost the ability to grasp ideas and emotion in visual terms. Good thing this doesn’t slow Kaige down. Every shot bears the colour and precision of a painting come to life. A princess’ childhood promise leaves her cursed to lose every man she’ll ever fall in love with. Soon a warrior and a slave are competing for her affections. Kaige’s Shakespeare tragedy finds characters pursuing love as selfish entitlement.

8. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese gives in to the audience wanting his return to the tough guy terrain of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino. But rather than make it a concession for old prestige, Scorsese shows how far he can go by approaching The Departed as a pulp genre piece. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both play men working for the Boston police and an Irish mobster. Unknown to one another, they’re moles on opposite sides. It’s an ethically considered comic dilemma, where good and bad are just labels. The remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs brings its own surprises—especially rewarding when you see it in a packed theatre, and watch how Scorsese can startle an audience into disbelief.

9. Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison)

The Karate Kid formula is transposed across gender and race, and refined into a rare, knowing portrait of American life. The test of will is a spelling bee, and the kid is an 11-year-old girl in inner city Los Angeles. As Akeelah, Keke Palmer’s thoroughly unaffected performance gives her pursuit urgency. She’s in a largely white competition, but guided by Laurence Fishburne as her mentor, on terms that stay true to herself. It’s a needed embracement of identity and experience. Atchison demonstrates how a simple narrative doesn’t have to be excluded from big emotion.

10. Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan)

M. Night Shyamalan’s film about the importance of storytelling examines his own social role as a filmmaker. This isn’t completely novel: Tim Burton did something similar with Big Fish. And this movie is interesting in context of Pan’s Labyrinth, which also delves into the healing potential of myth. What makes Lady in the Water such a kick (contrary to buzz that it’s Shyamalan’s worst movie, it’s actually his most fascinating) is how earnest it is about its fairytale inventions, without stepping outside a familiar world setting. It takes guts to pull off something this uncompromising within the Hollywood system. Paul Giamatti is an apartment superintendent led on a funny and scary investigation of disbelief when he finds a woman from a faraway place in his swimming pool. In its faith that popular artforms can unify an insular culture, Shyamalan’s effort carries some of the optimistic wonder of early Spielberg.

Runners-up: The Science of Sleep, United 93, The Black Dahlia, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, A Prairie Home Companion, The Hills Have Eyes

Check out Mark Palermo’s ranking of every film he saw in 2006.

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